University of Iowa could leave national sanction list

Professor's organization finds campus governance improvement

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette/file photo)

Two years after landing on the American Association of University Professors’ ignominious list of sanctioned higher education institutions, the University of Iowa is at the threshold of making an exit.

The UI Faculty Senate learned Wednesday morning the national association’s Committee on College and University Governance has voted to recommend UI be removed from the list of institutions sanctioned for violating shared governance standards. Iowa’s sanction followed faculty outcry over the Board of Regents’ disregard of campus opinion in hiring Bruce Harreld as UI president in 2015.

Sanctions can harm school reputations and create challenges in recruiting faculty, many of whom are represented by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit association — founded in 1915 to develop higher education standards and advocate specifically for academic freedom and shared governance values.

University of Iowa’s removal from the dishonorable list isn’t final until delegates at the AAUP’s 104 annual meeting on June 16 vote to either accept the committee’s recommendation or reject it.              

Hans-Joerg Tiede — associate secretary for the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance — told The Gazette he has no way of knowing how members will vote, although institutions are removed from the association’s sanctioned and censored list every year.

“It’s always for us a very welcome development because it shows institutions of higher education pay attention to what the AAUP has to say about conditions at the institutions, and that they care about the standards that we promote,” Tiede said. “Every time an institution is removed from the sanction or censure list, It confirms the importance of the standards that we advocate for.”

The AAUP sanctions institutions after its investigations reveal “serious departures by the administration and/or governing board from generally accepted standards of college and university government.” The association currently lists seven schools on its sanctioned list — with UI as the most recent addition.

It also censures institutions for failing to observe “generally recognized principles of academic freedom and tenure.” The AAUP’s censure list is much older and longer, with dozens included — like University of Missouri for its high-profile and controversial removal of a professor in 2016.

AAUP delegates in June 2016 unanimously agreed to sanction UI for “substantial non-compliance with standards of academic government” in its selection of Harreld — a former IBM executive with no academic administrative experience. Although the university was slapped with the sanction, the AAUP noted the reprimand primarily was directed at the Board of Regents, which ignored widespread criticism of Harreld’s candidacy and a faculty survey showing Harreld was the least-liked finalist of four.  

“The board’s leadership had engineered the search to identify a figure from the business world who was congenial to its image of ‘transformative leadership,’” according to a committee’s recommendation for sanction. “Once the regents identified such a person, what followed was at best an illusion of an open, honest search.”

The AAUP, at the time, called the precipitating events “part of a broader emerging crisis in U.S. higher education, which, in the committee’s words ‘is occasioned by headstrong, thoughtless action by politically appointed regents who lack any respect for the faculties of the institutions over which they preside.”

At the time of Harreld’s hire, the Board of Regents was headed by agribusiness mogul Bruce Rastetter, a close ally of former Gov. Terry Branstad and major political donor to local and national republicans.

He heavily recruited Harreld to campus, refusing to take no for an answer on several occasions. He arranged meetings for Harreld — at Harreld’s request — with several other regents at Rastetter’s place of work. No other candidates asked for such meetings and thus did not have the opportunity to discuss the job with the hiring board outside of the official search and interview process.

Harreld was met with widespread opposition and cynicism during his public forum as a candidate and many urged the board to hire one of the other three finalists.

After Harreld’s hire, protests erupted on campus, and faculty and students issued votes of no-confidence in the Board of Regents.

But the board has new leadership and since 2015 has overseen presidential searches considered “successful” at its other two public universities — Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa.

UI faculty, meanwhile, have taken steps to address the harm of a national sanction — establishing a UI Faculty Senate committee charged with working toward sanction removal. That committee, Tiede said, spent more than a year crafting a document to guide the board’s future presidential searches.

“The document addresses the kinds of concerns that were raised in our investigative report about the conduct of that search,” Tiede said. “It was submitted to the regents and the regents responded to the senate to indicate they intended to have future searches be guided by this document.”

The national AAUP also sent a representative to Iowa City to assess the current climate for governance at the institution, meeting with faculty and local AAUP chapter representatives. That person spoke by phone with Harreld.

“He gave a report to us of the climate for governance at the institution,” Tiede said. “And those things were provided to the committee on governance. And on the basis of that information, the committee voted to recommend that the sanction be removed.”

Tiede said the national association will make more information available after its vote in June. UI professor Katherine Tachau, president of the local AAUP chapter, on Wednesday called the proposed sanction removal "an excellent recommendation," as the faculty, administration, staff, and even regents worked for months to develop the "best practices document" for searches going forward.

"It represents an exemplary process of mutually solving a problem in shared governance," she said, adding the "2015 fiasco of a search" inspired a "rediscovery" of those virtues. "I’ll be among the local chapter’s delegates to the annual AAUP meeting in June, and I expect we will all be voting for the lifting of sanctions," Tachau said.

Despite the concerns around Harreld's hire, since taking office he's advocated for shared governance and for other forms of faculty support — including increased pay.

Harreld also has enacted a new budgeting process that involves department and college heads and launched an academic organization structure review aimed at “helping the UI become a more forward-looking, nimble university that focuses our limited resources in support of academic excellence.”

Critics remain, however. Some — specifically faculty in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — have expressed concern about the first phase of the academic structure review, noting suspicions it’s predestined to break up the university’s largest college.

Harreld also has faced criticism for dissolving the UI Alumni Association, combining it with the UI Foundation under the new banner title, “The University of Iowa Center for Advancement.” He pitched the unification as a way to leverage the strengths and expertise of the organizations, which he said have overlapping missions.

Opponents of the move have disparaged both the idea and its rollout, accusing Harreld of circumventing association bylaws by announcing the structural change without a board vote.

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